People usually associate the vancouver-based Adbusters with anti-consumerism, anti-branding and anti-capitalism. But the magazine's recent announcement of plans to produce, market and sell an "anti-brand" sneaker, the blackSpot, has left many activists confused, and some even laughing, thinking it's an elaborate and cynical joke in the Adbusters tradition of, well, busting ads. It isn't.
Adbusters has been doing R&D on the low-cut canvas sneaker - suggested retail price $40 - for a year. "Rethink the cool" subvertisements for "the world's first grassroots anti-brand" have appeared on billboards near Nike's Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters.
Donations are also being collected to raise $47,000 for a full-page ad in the New York Times.
Nike president "Phil Knight had a dream," the blackSpot pitch on Adbusters' Web site says. "He'd sell shoes. He'd sell dreams. He'd get RICH. He'd use sweatshops if he had to. Then along came the new shoe. Plain. Simple. Cheap. FAIR. Designed for only one thing. Kicking Phil's ass.
"We take on Phil at his own game - and win. We turn the shoes we wear into a counter-branding game. The swoosh versus the anti-swoosh. Whose side are you on?"
Confused by this foray myself, I decide to get in touch with Kalle Lasn, Adbusters' founder, editor-in-chief and self-proclaimed "ruler of the roost."
In talking to Lasn, I discovered that my understanding of Adbusters was wrong. While I thought the magazine took a hyper-cynical stance against branding, consumption and capitalism, Lasn insists that there is nothing wrong with these activities per se - they just need to be adjusted.
To my even greater surprise, Lasn wants to make his shoes in the developing world, in a "clean" factory in China. "We don't want to buckle under to these union people in the First World," he says.
Lasn says that the point of his shoe is to "use the slightly unhealthy momentum of a huge corporation against itself to launch a competing product." In doing so, Adbusters hopes to demolish Nike, thereby ushering in a new era of "grassroots" or "bottoms-up" capitalism.
Bottoms-up capitalism aims to take the cool-making power out of the hands of the big corporations and return it to the people. Essentially, the blackSpot sneaker is intended to empower people because it has a positive idea attached to it - that of being able to change the world.
But wait, aren't we just talking about a pair of shoes here?
Theorists like Naomi Klein and Thomas Frank argue that we keep buying lots of stuff we don't actually need simply because we think it will make us cooler.
I have seen similar arguments made in Adbusters itself. So I ask Lasn if he thinks it's hypocritical for Adbusters to use lifestyle - albeit a progressive lifestyle - to sell its shoes.
He replies: "I didn't say it's bad to sell a lifestyle. It's bad in a cynical fashion to arbitrarily zero in on some emotion that means something to young people and then to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to celebrities to promote that emotion, attach that emotion to your brand and create a money-driven corporate cool that ultimately is a mind-fuck."
Apparently, as long as the message is right, it's OK to consume products you don't really need.
Perhaps Adbusters was changing its ideological stance in favour of a more realistic approach. After all, Lasn tells me that "buying something and what you wear will always be a lifestyle choice. It's something you cannot escape."
What about producing the shoes in the developing world? Lasn tells me that he wants the blackSpot manfactured overseas so that he can promote worker's rights worldwide and because he thinks people in other countries need jobs just as much as we do here.
It's been pointed out elsewhere that Lasn's line about helping workers in poor countries who are "yearning to work" is exactly what Nike president Knight has been preaching for years. But Lasn assures me that Adbusters is "going to go there and find the very best factory."
OK, but does anyone in the Western world really need another pair of shoes?
"Yes, I think they do," Lasn replies. "We're selling real, authentic empowerment. If you wear the blackSpot sneaker, you're helping to demolish a big, bad corporation that has done dirty deeds in the Third World.
"I'm all in favour of just having one pair of shoes," adds Lasn. "People who own 10 pairs of shoes are people who have already been mind-fucked and have bought into the corporate philosophy and are getting their self-esteem from buying things."
So who, then, is the target market?
"We haven't really thought very much about that."